Why we laugh at losers: Dissecting Louis C.K.

Louie (TV series)

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I’m a die-hard fan of Louis C.K. and Louie (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m. ET on FX Network, at the time of this posting). But C.K.’s seriocomedy isn’t offering much in the way of comic relief these days. The plot lines seem increasingly horrific. Maybe they’ve always been, and I’m just now noticing because I had to catch up on several episodes in one night.

Tickling with feathers

Let’s see: “Duckling” — an idea conceived by C.K.’s real-life 6-year-old daughter, Mary Louise Szekely — plopped the comic into the heart of the Afghanistan War, with all of its grim baggage. Still, it conquers with “heart” as his screen daughter, worried for her dad’s welfare, sneaks the classroom mascot into his duffel as an amulet. Scary war, with a warm-fuzzy touch.

The “Niece” episode explores child neglect and mental illness. “Eddie” is about suicide, while refreshingly non-judgmental. “Country Drive” riffs on racism and stars a corpse. (No disrespect to nonagenarian Eunice Anderson’s acting.)

Hats off to the comedian for gingerly handling sobering topics that have become his bread-and-butter: depression, divorce, meaninglessness, while always managing a twinkle in his eye, a glimmer of hope, like Tinker-Bell among marauding villains.

Revolutionary evolutionary comedy

Has modern comedy gotten too serious? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s satirical news shows prompt side-splitting laughter, yet they’re merely telling it like it is. It’s actually hard to find any good escapist comedy these days. Louis C.K.’s genius offerings are so real and honest, they often make me wanna cry. Can’t remember the last time I LOL’ed watching it. My emotions puddle inside.

Licensed by CreativeCommons. “You’re rubber, I’m glue, whatever I say, bounces off of you and sticks on me?” Jim Carrey in Spain.

Laughing through tears is “soitenly” nothing new. As cutting-edge as Louis C.K. seems, his is a tried-and-true formula: stand-up from the down and downtrodden, laughing at the tears of a clown. From the woebegone Charlie Chaplin and Jack Benny, to Rodney “Don’t Get No Respect” Dangerfield and the nerdy slapshtick of Jerry Lewis … Jim Carrey’s “loo-HOO-seh-HER” springs to mind, an attack launched at others but landing on him … even the repressed/oppressed Woody Allen, “Hungarican” Freddie Prinze and countless other “subjugated” minority and female comedians — much of it stems from Schadenfreude, mirth at the misfortune of others. We’re glad we’re not that guy. Or maybe we are that guy, and that’s why we get the gag. Feeling ticklish, after all, is but the realization that an assault that could hurt us doesn’t — the momentary fear of an attack that proves non-life-threatening, so we laugh in relief and acceptance and trust-bonding, so they say. Here’s how the hilarious “Avenue Q” explains taking pleasure at another’s pain:

When at war, DUCK!! Or make “Duck Soup.” Licensed by CreativeCommons

Does that mean comedy is mean-spirited at its core? I don’t think so, but more and more it’s the absurdist view that sells, while the madcap-screwball variety seems passé. That must be a reflection of society, but someone smarter than I am can analyze it.

In terms of comic art, Louis C.K. is that rare practitioner who packs a lot of punch into his non-punch lines and running-on-emptiness perspective. The material he draws upon, his real-life fatherhood, is also what seems to inject the dark show with its bright spots. These innocents, his own duckling kids, ultimately make life worthwhile in spite of himself. The show is inconceivable without the drama of those little girls, just as it seems C.K. hit his stride only after their real-world arrival added charm and stark contrast to his act.

Kinda glad Louis C.K. didn’t dedicate all of his life to masturbation and squeezed in some procreation there.

As much as I enjoyed the heralded “Duckling” episode (based on C.K.’s own USO tour in 2008 to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan), it seemed a bit predictable for Louie. For me, the Louie episode dubbed “Halloween/Ellie” — touching on random violence yet somehow skirting Halloween horrors — may prove C.K.’s most telling of the season. For all of the “loserdom” the show glorifies, the Louie character acts almost heroically  — granted, only after taking a cue from 5-year-old Jane.

The episode also seems to sum up C.K.’s approach to his art, when his character gets a golden chance to be golden boy to a Paramount Pictures exec, who sees promise in him and could help turn his life around. Of course, he blows it, with this movie pitch:

“You know how movies … there’s always a guy and, like, his life is always OK, and then something happens, there’s a conflict, and he gets to resolve it and then his life gets better? Well, I always wanted to make a movie where a guy’s life is really bad and then something happens and it makes it worse, but instead of resolving it, he just makes bad choices and then it goes from worse to really bad, and things just keep happening to him and he keeps doing dumb things, so his life just gets worse and worse and, like, darker and … he lives in a one-room apartment, he’s not a very good-looking guy, has no friends and he works in, like, a factory … a sewage disposal plant! and then he gets fired, so now he doesn’t even have his job at the shit factory anymore, and he’s going broke, and he takes a trip and it rains … just stuff, shit keeps .. horrible .. and then he meets a girl and she’s beautiful and he falls in love, so you think that’s gonna be the thing, the happy thing! but then she turns out to be a crook and she robs him, she takes his wallet and now he’s, like, stuck in the middle of nowhere and he’s got no wallet, no credit cards. Like, what do you do? how do you even get home …?”

I like to imagine that was close to the pitch C.K. made to get his Louie pilot off the ground two seasons ago. Don’t miss the season finale, “Airport / New Jersey,” this Thursday, Sept. 8, at 10:30 p.m. on FX.

Louie, Louie, Louie, Loo-whee!!

And here is, not a clip from “Duckling,” but part of his bit on “duck vaginas,” which he recasts in the Louie stand-up segment. Warning: This is not “Duck Soup.” Also, it’s striking how peppy Louis C.K. is compared with his dour doppelganger on Louie.